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Neighborhood Report: Tampa

Dilapidated homes make city's hit list

A handful of South Tampa homes make the city's condemnation list, because they are rife with code violations owners have ignored.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 17, 2003


Tampa's southside neighborhoods are awash with waterfront mansions, refurbished bungalows and pampered lawns.

But dumpy homes happen. Even here.

In Port Tampa, Prescott Street looks like it could have been plucked out of Mayberry -- except for the weathered wooden house with the boarded-up windows and scruffy cats prowling the yard.

Another offender sags on Fifth Avenue in Ybor City, chicken bones and empty lighters scattered on the porch.

Near the University of Tampa, homeless people hide shopping carts behind a Fig Street residence that sheltered four generations of the same family. Now, neighbors fear it will go up in flames.

"The dope addicts, they sleep in there," said Hazel Petty, an elderly disabled woman who lives nearby. "You'll never know when they'll burn it down."

When city code enforcement officials unveiled a worst-of-the-worst list of 49 condemned homes last week, a handful of addresses in or near South Tampa made the cut, including those three.

At least two dozen others made a runners-up list rife with violations that inspire Jeff Foxworthy jokes: cars under perpetual repair; kitchen appliances rusting in the yard; grass tall enough to hide deer.

Many of the problem addresses dot working-class neighborhoods north of Kennedy Boulevard and downtown: Tampa Heights, MacFarlane Park, North Hyde Park. But code violators sprout south of Kennedy, too -- in Interbay, in Palma Ceia Park, even in Sunset Park.

Sue Lyon isn't surprised. "Remember the rat house?" she asked.

Lyon, president of Tampa Homeowners, an Association of Neighborhoods, was referring to the Virginia Park home the city bulldozed in 1997 after finding more than 1,000 rats -- and two women -- living inside.

"Not everybody is perfect, and South Tampa is not perfect," Lyon shrugged. South Tampa is "not just the Palma Ceia Country Club."

Abandoned houses become eyesores, drug dens and fire hazards. Some liken them to cancerous tumors that kill neighborhoods, block by block.

Since October, the city has bulldozed 22 homes, including two in Interbay, two in West Tampa and one in North Hyde Park. The demolition derby shifted into higher gear this year after City Council chipped in $511,000 for the effort -- some $200,000 more than last year..

"It's a start," council member Rose Ferlita said last week.

But even with a more aggressive approach, nudging some property owners into compliance won't be easy.

The system calls for multiple warnings before city action that could lead to fines, condemnation or demolition. And the city remains hesitant about going to court if there are attempts to comply, said Bill Doherty, the city code enforcement manager.

It doesn't want to put additional hardship on property owners with legitimate money problems, he said. And it doesn't want to see potentially good homes razed.

"We want to preserve the housing stock," Doherty said.

The result: Even simple cases can take months.

In Beach Park, the city first cited owners of a vacant house on Estrella Street in July, records show. It wasn't secure enough to prevent people from breaking in and there was too much junk in the yard.

Despite several warning letters to the homeowners, who live in Sarasota, the property continued to flunk inspections in August, September and October. Only last week did the owners finally comply.

In Palma Ceia Park, Larry Kelso got a written warning from the city last month. The beef in bureaucratic terms: "Overgrowth." The beef according to neighbors: His yard is a jungle.

But Kelso, 73, isn't about to sharpen the clippers. He said he's in the midst of moving; his health isn't good; and the new owners will probably tear down the unruly shrubs anyway.

"I'm not being obstinate," said Kelso, who is retired from the city water department. "I'm being practical."

Neighbors don't understand why more can't be done, and sooner. But the city says it has to be practical, too.

Days after Dan O'Connell bought an old house on Ybor's Fifth Avenue last year, the city told him it needed an upgrade, lickety-split. Tampa Fire Rescue proclaimed it a severe fire hazard and potential threat to other homes on the block.

But O'Connell said he couldn't fix it right away; he had other houses to renovate first.

The city said okay.

O'Connell said he'll get to it in four or five months. His vision: a renovated historic structure worthy of a law office or insurance agency. In the meantime, he drives by every day to make sure people haven't pulled off the plywood that covers the windows.

"I think we're vagrant-free now, but you never know," he said.

The people who live near 4703 Prescott St. in Port Tampa don't have a problem with vagrants. They fear varmints. The sad red house is accused of harboring everything from termites to raccoons to feral cats.

The city first warned the owners four years ago.

Since then, the city has made repeated threats to tear the house down and the owners have made repeated promises to fix it, records show.

Dana Silveus said she plans to live in it when it's renovated. She now lives across the street.

"It's going to be totally redone," she said last week. But "you have to be able to do things. They don't magically happen."

Steven Silveus secured permits from the city the day after Christmas -- almost two years after his sister first told city officials they were in the process of geting them.

The city's response: Okay then, one more chance. But this is it.

Said Doherty: "Come March, if that thing is not worked on, that baby is coming down."

-- Staff Writer Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com .

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